Voting from the Middle

New Hampshire: Home To the "First In The Nation" Presidential Primary

The mailman just delivered our property tax bill and mail-in ballots.  With my larger project well underway, this inspires me to take a pause and consider the mid-term elections.  

A few years into my time working in Portland City Hall, I chose to change my registration from Democrat to Non-affiliated.  While nominally non-partisan, the politics and policy in City Hall is hard left liberal Democrat.  Having called myself a Democrat for most of my life, I was initially fine with that even when I have never voted the party line.  But I am also someone who has spent a couple of decades studying political polarization independently and as the focus of my MA.  Turns out that once I found myself in the belly of the political left beast, I found it oppressive.  Moderation was immediately suspect.  In creating policy and law, Portland’s city government feeds only from one ideological trough.  Reasonable arguments out of the left’s orthodoxy are rejected out of hand.

To be sure, this experience would have been the same if I was working in say the city hall of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Every idea would be based in a monoculture of right wing, conservative thinking.  Given who I am, I think my reaction would have been the same.  Reject the orthodoxy and seek middle ground.

A great liberation happens when you are no longer affiliated with a political party.  You are now a genuine consumer of ideas and candidates.  The source of those candidates has no bearing on who you chose to support.  In a two-party system, it then becomes the job of both parties to bring me ballot measures and candidates for consideration.  Voting becomes a wonderfully engaged act.  I have to pay close attention to the details.  No longer am I free to lazily cast a party line vote.  I am not either team.  I am on team good governance.  Still, it takes a certain willful stubbornness to not be on one of the two teams.  

In keeping with my beliefs, I have chosen to support the genuinely moderate Republican Knute Buehler for governor of Oregon.  I know that with 30 years of one party domination Oregon is leaving good ideas on the table in favor of partisan solutions.  And, with a solidly Democrat legislature, this is a pretty easy choice.  The Founders built into our system the active mechanism of divided government to force compromise.  They feared above all, faction, the domination of single interest parties.  I get pretty excited when I think about the possibilities of divided government here.  In fact, Sally and I have given to 9 different Democrat House candidates in order to create the same sort of checks and balances of divided government in Washington DC.  

Advocating for my candidate has revealed the nature of polarization.  I have friends who believe any vote for a Republican is a betrayal.  Even when they agree that Governor Brown is at best a lackluster choice, the idea of breaking from their team is repugnant.  Brown’s campaign is now running ads that morph Buehler into Trump.  That is likely to work here, but it is also an admission that she has nothing positive to offer, just more partisan bickering.  That makes me very sad.  I want us to be better than this.

Political monoculture also has the effect of reducing the quality of candidates.  This is true of the Portland City Council race this year.  I have seen both candidates close-up and know the insider stories of their politics.  Neither one is a good choice.  They operate in a very narrow band of the existing liberal Portland politics.  And, the city council will swing further left.  This may make many in the city happy.  I doubt that it will make city government better or more responsive to all Portlanders.  You should see what happens to moderates who chose to testify in front of city council now.  It ain’t pretty.

Looking at my property tax, I see a huge portion is for bonds from several different public entities.  I like paying my taxes.  I think it is part of my duty as a citizen.  But when I look at the ballot, I see even more bond measures and taxes in front of us.  A touchstone issue for the liberal parts of Oregon is the need to somehow punish evil corporations.  Year after year, driven by the Democrats and public labor unions, there have been measures to tax corporations.  Mostly, those measures fail statewide, but now there is a miniature version of this sort of tax just in Portland.  We have a very bad habit of creating one-off taxes here to benefit “good” special interests.  Of course, the response of corporations, constantly under attack, is to try to pass constitutional amendments to prevent any corporate taxes.  Altering the state constitution for tax measures is pure madness.  The endless back and forth gets us nowhere.  Well, it does make political consultants wealthy.

Some corporations are venal.  But I worked in the private sector for 25 years.  I have seen thousands of employees create good lives working for corporations.  And, it is naive to think that when taxed, those public corporations will not simply pass the tax back to consumers in higher costs.  Retailers operate on thin margins, the money has to come from somewhere.  There is no magic pile of money.  

We have a bond measure for affordable housing from our regional government.  People tell me that it is only $60 a year.  Yet, when you line up all of the indebtedness on our property tax bill it creeps into the $1,000 range.  I wonder about people on fixed incomes who have to pay that bill.  I also wonder about the wisdom of a regional government with no housing experience being put into that new business.  We need the housing but why would we create a new bureaucracy with its new overhead to address this problem?  Silly, but most renters don’t consider that those raised property taxes are passed on in their next rent increase.  No magic pile of money.

As a voter from the middle, I don’t have a reflexive vote.  And in Oregon, non-affiliated voters outnumber registered Republicans and are getting close to Democrats in registration.  There is something happening here.  Voting based on my team and not their team is facing an emerging national trend to back away from both parties.  I am encouraged by this trend.  If you too think that political polarization is the defining flaw in our current politics, try backing away from the two parties.  It’s a challenging decision, but it really feels good to know your vote isn’t a given and that you will only be swayed by the quality of the ideas and people on your ballot.

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